Through Bolshevik Russia/Chapter 3

CHAPTER III


Ghosts


WHEN I was a little child I had a lively and delicious contact with fairies. We used to laugh and sing and dance together through many happy hours like the good comrades we were. But I cannot say that I have ever seen a ghost; that is, I had never seen one until I went to Russia. During the whole of the time I was in Russia I was haunted.

The Russian novelists have been very faithful to their people. Turgenieff, Dostoievski, Gorky, Tolstoy, and the rest of them take one into the real Russia as one reads. It is a country peopled with human beings who dream dreams and see visions, who have suffered more cruelly and aspired more loftily than the people of most other European countries.

The Narishkin Palace in which we were lodged is a fine house devoted to the mistress of one of the Czars by her lover. It lies on the banks of the Neva and faces, on the other side, the grim fortress of St. Peter and St. Paul. I stood on the balcony and looked across the river at the place of horrors where so many of Russia's noblest men and women had gone to their deaths, the poor victims of tyrant princes and their ministers. The abominable cruelties practised upon the martyrs for Russian freedom have been as familiar to one's mind as the alphabet, and for almost as long. One's youngest, purest and best emotion has been given throughout one's life to those who have endured torture, disgrace and death for truth and liberty.

I recalled a meeting with Volkhovsy in England, deaf and crippled by his sufferings in this hideous fortress; of Prince Kropotkin, one of the oldest of the surviving victims of Czarist tyranny; of Madame Breshskovski, the "grandmother of the Revolution"; of Marie Spirodovna, whose special sufferings as a young woman were loathsome and unspeakable. In sad procession these figures of tortured and wounded and dead passed silently before my eyes as I leaned over the stone balcony and gazed into the red light of the sky behind the dark fortress we were sometime soon to visit.

And into my dreams they pursued me. The room in the Narishkin Palace which I shared with Madame Balabanov was once on a time a beautiful salon. A scanty curtain which stretched only half-way across the room made a pretence of dividing it in two and securing privacy for each of us. Behind the curtain was the door which opened into the dining-room. Close to my bed was a second door which led to the corridor, at the end of which was a bedroom. There were neither long curtains nor blinds to keep out the everlasting light. Some thin and inadequate muslin was drawn across the lower half of the windows, but was too scanty to afford any protection against observers in the building opposite.

On entering the room after the intense fatigue and excitement of the long journey one felt its beauty comforting and refreshing. The fine linen sheets, the soft silk hangings, the eiderdown bed-covers, the thick velvety carpet, the quaint, carved and gilded furniture spoke of gentle living utterly unlooked-for by us, and, to do ourselves justice, undesired by us in a country full of people slowly dying for lack of the barest necessaries. It was the most exaggerated kindness on the part of our hosts, so anxious to make us comfortable and happy, to give us the very best they possessed.

But there, for me, was the trouble. They gave us all this luxury and beauty, but was it theirs to give or ours to receive? They had no doubts on this score whatever. They could see nothing at all in the argument that the present possessor of property that belongs morally, if not legally, to the State, having been permitted to grow up in the belief that what the law sanctioned must necessarily be right, is not quite fairly treated if he is quite suddenly turned into the streets without resources, and his property confiscated.

One would not dispute for a moment the principle that nobody should possess luxuries or even superfluous comforts until the elementary needs of everybody have been amply satisfied and secured; or that a royal palace is put to much better use when it shelters many industrious persons than when it houses a king's mistress and her lackeys. But there is a difference as great as between black and white and right and wrong, between the declared will of the majority of the citizens acting through their National Assembly or Parliament which, in the interest of the community dispossesses an individual but secures the future of his wife and children as well as himself, and the arbitrary action of the minority in power, who roughly confiscate without consideration for the dispossessed.

"Where is the owner of this beautiful house?" I asked several times, but I could get no reply. Nobody knew. I heard the story of a Princess Narishkin who was doing good work for the children under the Soviet, but do not know if it was true. One heard so many contradictory stories. If true, was she happy, I wondered? It might conceivably be so. The old revolutionary movement in Russia was by no means a one-class movement. Many of the old régime have willingly consented to the confiscation of their estates and goods and are content to do hard work for the new Republic. In such cases no question of right or wrong arises. These are rare souls.

Before the end of the visit I met an old man who was the millionaire owner of a great line of steamships before the Revolution. The Revolution had completely dispossessed him. I found him quite content and happy about it. He formed part of the secretariat of an important Committee on Communications and travelled regularly as a Government employé on his own ships. His one grievance was the way in which the inventory of his fortune had been taken. He felt that his revolutionary record might have secured him more considerate treatment in the method of taking over his enterprises; but even on this point he was entirely without bitterness.

In Astrakhan we met the owner of a great fish-curing industry, who had yielded up everything to the Republic without a murmur, and who declared himself happier making nets along with his former workpeople than he had ever been in his life.

I slipped quickly into my bed that first night in Petrograd and tried to sleep and forget the ghost my self-questioning had raised; but sleep refused to come. It was not because no darkness came and the pale light streamed in through the un-shaded windows. It was not altogether the lack of privacy, though the fact that one's room was regarded as a public highway through which the men and women of the household tramped indiscriminately whenever they chose was, to say the least of it, disconcerting. I felt like a guilty thing, lying uninvited by its owner in that soft, white bed, whilst the poor creature who once occupied it might be sleeping on straw. I dozed; and inevitably cold, sad eyes in a thin, hungry-looking face would gaze at me with the look of any woman whose house had been entered by intruders she was powerless to put outside.

I tried very hard to control my imagination, but it was very difficult. Cruelty is one of the vices which madden one. When we rode in the late Czar's motor-car, I did not feel the presence of my fellow-delegates, but the ghosts of the murdered unhappy little man and his family. The car was a thing of beauty, large and luxurious. Without it one could have seen very little. But the perfect joy of using it was marred by two things—the sight of the sore and undressed feet of many of the weary proletarians of Moscow who had not the means even for a tram-ride, much less a ride in an automobile or a droshky; and by the obvious joy and satisfaction with which those who accompanied us on our investigations regarded the capture of the Czar's car as an emblem of a cruel triumph.

"Whenever you are tempted to feel concerned about the execution of the Czar and his family," said a friendly Communist, "think about the millions of innocent human beings who have recently lost their lives through the policies of that man and his ministers. And call to your mind the vast hosts of martyrs who have fallen victims to the cruelties of his predecessors."

The advice was well-meant but unnecessary. I have already said that it would be impossible to forget the martyrs of the Revolution and the tortures of those grand idealists of Russia. The visit in Petrograd to the graves of some of them is an incident in a wide experience in many countries, the memory of which will stay with me to the end of my days. It was so sincere, yet so dramatic.

A large open space in the heart of the city called the Field of Mars, and devoted in the old times to military reviews and the drilling of troops, is being converted by the Communists into a fine memorial of the heroes of the Revolution who have lost their lives in some prominent fashion in the struggle for freedom. Voluntary labour and the labour of the Red Army is digging up the hard soil and planting beautiful trees in symmetrical designs. In the middle of this large tract a simple stone memorial has been erected. It is not a flaunting column shouting to the sky, but it takes the form of a low, solid, granite wall, enclosing in four sections with rounded corners a burial ground. The spaces between the sections permit people to enter. From all parts of Russia the bodies have been brought and are laid just inside the wall and all the way round. A footpath follows the wall and encloses the graves on the other side. The centre of the square is at present a grass-plot with flowers and shrubs. The whole thing is naturally on a very large scale.

One lovely evening, after a most enthusiastic gathering inside the People's Hall, we were taken in a decorated tramcar to see the Martyrs' Memorial. I have experienced nothing in my life so moving and impressive. A great crowd from the meeting accompanied us, and stood in silent groups outside the wall whilst we walked slowly round. The eyes of the leaders shone with the light of a great pride and a deep passion as they approached one by one the graves of their honoured dead. The pride melted into tears at some of the graves, when we stopped in our walk and sang slowly a verse of the plaintive martyrs' hymn, a sad and haunting melody with just a single note of triumph in it. One after another the heroes were pointed out to us. Here was a man who had been tortured to death. Here was one who was shot by hired Government assassins. Here lay one who was blown to bits by his own bomb; here a tender girl who gave up her life for the cause.

The tears were quickly dried. Russian revolutionaries do not weep easily. Instead of tears a hard glitter filled the eyes of a fierce fellow. "But we will be avenged," he shouted. "For every one of our comrades who has died like this we will send ten of the bourgeois to their graves." I shuddered in the presence of a terrible fanaticism. Poor ghosts! If they could rise from the dead would they not tell us to make no more human sacrifices to their memory? Would they not speak to us of a better way?

I tried hard to get a copy of the mournful song we sang on this and many occasions subsequently. I was several times promised it but it never came. The words I never knew for they were Russian, but the melody I captured and I give it as it printed itself upon my mind. It will be recognised by Russian readers.

SONG OF THE MARTYRS


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This habit of seeing ghosts brought me a good deal of chaff not only from the Communists but from my own friends. One of the Communists made a speech in defence of violent methods and gave a sidelook at me when he reminded the British Delegates that "once on a time the British Government made its king shorter by a head," as did the people of France.

"It is quite true," I said afterwards to a group of Communists who were discussing with us the meeting. "King Charles the First was executed three hundred years ago in England. But it was after a proper trial by the recognised Courts of Justice. He was found guilty of the charges laid against him. And we did not shoot his wife and children. But if the idea of his execution was to get rid of kings it was the wrong way; for kings we have still with us. And they will remain with us so long as the king-idea continues to be acceptable to the human mind. The Allies will never destroy the idea of Communism with their guns. The Communists can never destroy the idea of kingship and capitalism with their scaffolds. Only a good idea can slay a bad one. Only by proving that there is more manliness in democracy than autocracy, and more morality in Communism than in capitalism will the one institution give way to the other."

Of course I spoke to people who could never be convinced in a thousand years of argument. Neither could they understand the distinction one made between the system and the individual. To them all is the same. And individuals must be made responsible for the suffering which is caused by the system, even though they may themselves be tender and pitiful, and innocent of wrong.

It was the great point of difference which separated spiritually my hosts and me. "You can never build a permanent system on hate," I said again and again; but they believe they can. And because of this belief they have no pity to spare for the innocent children of a hated monarch and his foolish, fanatical wife, all shot in the name of Authority for the crime of being themselves.

Their poor ghosts flitted in and out of the compartments in the train which was lent to us in our journey from Saratov to Reval, the train belonging to the Czar's daughters. And following them, in tragic sequence, the endless procession of ghosts tramping their way through the snows to Siberia to the crack of the Cossack whips.

Russia is full of ghosts.